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Environmental Commission looks into acid waste spill at Samsung facility

Wednesday, February 9, 2022 by Willow Higgins

Samsung’s semiconductor facility spilled a large amount of acidic wastewater into its stormwater pond and into a tributary of Harris Branch Creek in Northeast Austin, killing virtually all aquatic life within the 1.5-mile stretch. As much as 763,000 gallons of the acidic waste was discharged into the waterways for a period of up to 106 days.

While the remaining spillage has since been valved shut and isolated into the stormwater pond, the teams overseeing the incident have begun damage control. Samsung initially reported that the chemicals in the water caused the tributary’s pH to drop far below normal levels, causing significant harm to the aquatic community and ecology of the tributary. The Watershed Protection Department is now conducting weekly water quality tests for the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency, and reported that the water pH is bouncing back to almost normal levels. 

Katie Coyne, an environmental officer at the city’s Watershed Protection Department, briefed the city’s Environmental Commission on the spill, and reported that it’s likely to take between six months and two years for the water’s ecosystem to recover, as it will have to completely rebuild itself.

“During recovery, due to the new state of the channel, it’ll probably go through a lot of boom and bust phases, including some algae blooms, and dominance of a lot of pioneering and opportunistic species,” Coyne said. “It’s going to be really vulnerable at that time to invasives and it might get stuck in alternative stable states. If that occurs, we know that restoration assistance might be necessary.”

Commissioner Richard Brimer asked why it took Samsung more than three months to identify the spill and how its monitoring can be improved to prevent this sort of failure in the first place.

Thain Maurer, who is on Watershed Protection’s spill response team, told the commission that Samsung wasn’t aware of the spill until Jan. 14, at which point it used its pump-run time to calculate that the spill could have been flowing for more than 100 days, due to infrastructure failures. 

Maurer explained that the engineering division of the Austin Fire Department, which gives Samsung its permits for hazardous materials storage, will “be working with Samsung to have improved monitoring in these areas where the failures occurred so that they would have a faster feedback loop and hopefully catch any spills immediately, rather than after the fact.” 

Commissioner Pam Thompson expressed concern about recent rainfall in the Austin area causing further discharge from the pond, where the wastewater is currently contained, back into the tributary. 

“They’ve been pumping the contaminated water from the pond to their normal waste stream for this waste, the sanitary sewer,” said Ryan Hebrink, a water quality compliance program manager with Watershed Protection. “So they have the levels drawn down quite significantly in the stormwater pond, and I believe that there’s a low risk of that pond overtopping.”

Samsung has told the Watershed Protection Department that it is working on restoration plans for the damage its spill has caused. According to Coyne, Samsung’s ideas include quarterly water quality monitoring for one to two years, adding native plants to improve water quality and support the return of invertebrates, creating additional riffle and pool habitats for invertebrates in the tributary, and potential off-site invasive species removal.

Area impacted by the spill, via the city of Austin.

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